What Exactly Is Game Theory?


Martha Robinson

Game theory is a fascinating and complex subject that has applications in a wide range of fields, from economics and politics to biology and psychology. At its core, game theory is the study of how people make decisions in competitive situations. It’s concerned with understanding the strategic interactions between individuals or groups who have conflicting interests.

What is a Game?

In game theory, a game refers to any situation where there are two or more players who are trying to achieve some outcome. Each player has a set of possible actions they can take, and the outcome of the game depends on the actions taken by all players. The players may or may not have complete information about each other’s preferences and strategies.

The Elements of a Game

There are four key elements that make up a game:

  • Players: The individuals or groups who are participating in the game.
  • Actions: The choices available to each player.
  • Payoffs: The rewards or penalties associated with different outcomes.
  • Information: The knowledge that each player has about the other players’ preferences and actions.

The Types of Games

There are many different types of games studied in game theory, but they can generally be divided into two categories:

  • Cooperative Games: In these games, players can communicate and form alliances to achieve common goals. Examples include business partnerships and international treaties.
  • Non-Cooperative Games: In these games, players cannot communicate or form alliances, and must pursue their own self-interest. Examples include poker, chess, and most economic situations.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

One of the most famous examples of a non-cooperative game is the prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are arrested for a crime and placed in separate cells.

Each suspect is given the option to either confess or remain silent. If both suspects confess, they each receive a shorter sentence than if they both remain silent. However, if one confesses and the other remains silent, the confessor goes free while the other receives a much longer sentence.

Applications of Game Theory

Game theory has many practical applications in fields such as economics, political science, biology, and psychology. It can be used to model and analyze complex situations where multiple players have conflicting interests.

For example, game theory can be used to understand how firms in an industry compete with each other, or how countries negotiate treaties and trade agreements. It can also be used to study animal behavior and evolution.

The Nash Equilibrium

One of the most important concepts in game theory is the Nash equilibrium, named after mathematician John Nash. A Nash equilibrium is a situation where no player can improve their outcome by changing their strategy, assuming that all other players stick to their strategies.

In other words, it’s a stable state where all players are satisfied with their outcomes. Finding the Nash equilibrium of a game can help predict how it will unfold and what strategies each player will adopt.


In conclusion, game theory is a fascinating field that has many applications in diverse areas such as business, politics, biology, and psychology. By understanding how people make decisions in competitive situations, we can gain insights into complex real-world problems and develop strategies for achieving our goals. Whether you’re interested in economics or just curious about human behavior, game theory is definitely worth exploring further!